February 2009

On Learning to Teach Political Theory: A Beginner's Account, Part 2
By Steven McGuire on February 03, 2009

In hockey, when things are going especially poorly for a team and morale is low, a coach can "lose the dressing room," which is to say that he can lose his authority among the players (and thus his ability to coach). Usually the relationship between the coach and his players is incurably poisoned in such a case—those players will never play their hearts out for that coach again—and this means that one or the other has to go—which means, in turn, that the coach is done "because you can't fire the whole team." Fortunately for those of us who aspire to become university teachers, there's the possibility of tenure and the fact that we "fire the whole team" at the end of every semester. But, more seriously, a teacher never wants to lose his credibility with the students, and, as Lee Trepanier and Phil Hamilton have pointed out in their comments on my last post, coming off as ideological or dogmatic is likely to have precisely this result. The question is, why?

My first inclination is to suggest that students will resist an ideological professor because they want to understand things for themselves. They want to know why they should think something, not just that they should think it. For this reason, it's not enough to tell students something—a teacher has to show it to them. Fair enough. Most teachers realize that true learning depends on students gaining an understanding of the materials from the inside out, which means that students must be allowed to think things through on their own terms. Students know this too; thus, if they sense that their teacher is trying to circumvent the process, they'll usually resist (despite their oft-demonstrated inability to distinguish between "thinking" something and "feeling" it, most students have a resilient capacity for resisting "indoctrination").

I think there's a lot of truth in that first answer, but, upon reflection, it seems to me that there's another, deeper reason: students recognize ideological and dogmatic thinking as a sign of incompetence. "Incompetence" is a strong word, so let me explain. Since the teacher-student relationship is a free one, it depends on trust. Teachers must trust that their students are interested in and willing to pursue the truth about things, and students must be able to trust that their teacher is willing and able to lead them there (or at least in that direction). Of course, some students won't live up to their end of the bargain, and I'm not sure that a teacher can do very much about that, but he can certainly ensure that he does his part. Simply put, this means understanding the materials. A teacher should understand his subject well enough that he can allow the materials to take on a life of their own and still be able to lead the students through them. He should have the capacity to steer the students toward truth by taking them through the logic of an argument or an interpretation "at arm's length." When a teacher is unable to do this—when he's unable to guide the students while addressing objections, answering questions, or explaining why alternative arguments don't go through—he may attempt to assert control over the materials (i.e., force the argument or interpretation in a particular direction) by resorting to ideological or dogmatic thinking. That is to say, if he's unable to lead the students through the materials in a scientific manner, he may try to do so by asserting unsupported opinions. I think students can sense this when it happens, and I think it explains why they will reject an ideological or dogmatic professor. They simply don't trust what the professor is telling them.

What this means is that, like hockey coaches, teachers rely on both formal and informal sources of authority—the latter probably being the most important. While it's true that students owe a certain deference to their teachers, this doesn't mean that they have to open up their minds to them. Whether they do that or not depends on whether they trust their professors, and that depends on whether a teacher can demonstrate that he deserves to be regarded with authority. Earning that regard depends on both knowledge and honesty: a teacher should know his subject, but he should also admit what he doesn't know and recognize that his authority ends where his knowledge (or at least his ability to communicate it) does.

That’s how it seems to me anyway. I'd be interested to hear what some more experienced teachers have to say.

Introducing Political Science: Ditching the Textbook - Part II
By John von Heyking on February 06, 2009
This is the second part of a post that began here.

When I started my first job, I was encouraged to teach the introduction to political science with a textbook. There are several introductory textbooks on the market. The one I ended up using for several years does its job very well. However, it is limited by the fact it is a textbook. Its chapters cover everything from the different ideologies (but no political philosophy), different institutions (e.g., judiciary, legislatures, etc.), and political actors (e.g., interest groups). The textbook contains a wealth of information, and, unlike others on the market, avoids reducing politics to ideological ax-grinding. However, like most other textbooks, it fails to provide students with a standard of judging the significance of the details. It fails to provide a narrative of what politics is about and that could enable them to see what the various ideologies, institutions, and political actors were all trying to accomplish.

In the subsequent years I tried to fill the gaps by assigning supplementary readings. Some years I assigned pivotal essays by figures like Leo Strauss who could address fundamental questions of political science. Other years I assigned readings that addressed contemporary political issues, and that enabled students to see how the concepts they learned in the textbooks play out in real life.

However, all those approaches fell short of my desired goal. The “big picture” essays did not integrate well with the myriad of details in the textbook. The articles on contemporary issues were more popular, but it was difficult for students to move beyond the details of the textbooks. They could see concepts in action in contemporary affairs, but they lacked a big picture “hook” upon which to hang those affairs and concepts.

Finally, I abandoned the use of textbooks. Instead, for the past couple of years I have adopted what I call a “Great Books” approach to introducing political science. Instead of assigning a textbook with a wealth of information, I assign a “classic” text from each of the four subfields in political science: political philosophy, Canadian politics (which would be U.S. politics in the U.S.), international relations, and comparative politics. Instead of getting introduced to political science with a waterfall of textbook information, the students read accessible “classics” of the field to learn what it means to think about politics. To borrow a formulation of Michael Oakeshott, they gain information, but, more importantly, they gain judgment. Of course, along the way they learn necessary information about justice, international law, responsible government, and so forth. However, they learn to integrate that technical knowledge into a whole. The other advantage is that they still receive an introduction to the discipline, and not to a specific regime, though not one as overly generalized as the textbook approach.

Even so, the students need a way of seeing a thread among those subfields. It is insufficient to get a handle on Canadian politics or international relations as separate subfields. They need to come out of the class with a basic question of what politics is as a distinctly human activity. I have found that before entering into the subfields, it is helpful to assign a reading that opens up some fundamental questions about politics. The assigned readings for the political philosophy section usually do this. First-year students find Plato’s Apology of Socrates or J. S. Mill’s “On Liberty” both appealing and accessible, and they open up important political questions that they can pursue in various ways in the readings for the other subfields.

However, I usually like to start the class with a work of literature. For example, for the past couple of years I have assigned Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. In a subsequent post, I shall explain how I use Brave New World to “unify” my introductory political science class. In future subsequent posts, I shall explain the other readings. I have also posted my course syllabus to illustrate this approach (and I hope readers will suggest ways I can improve my introductory class).

If Music be the Food for All – Part I
By Lee Trepanier on February 10, 2009

Of what should these national standards consist? Let me propose that music should be one of the core components of these national standards. Now at first music may seem a strange subject to start with – wouldn’t mathematics, science, or rhetoric be a more suitable choice to begin? The utilitarian features of these disciplines are self-evident: everyone needs to read, write, and count to function in society, while science is especially prized because we need scientists to manipulate nature for our greater material comfort and national defense. But what does music provide other than the amusement of smiles and well-wishes? What value does music have in and of itself?

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Why Academics Get a Bad Rap
By Lee Trepanier on February 10, 2009

A Professor Rancourt of the Physics Department at the University of Ottawa has refused to hold class because he did not want to become part of "our societal structures" that oppress and exploit people and the planet resources. Apparently he had something better to do than teach a physics course, i.e., political activism, and defended his decision not to teach class on the grounds of academic freedom. More of Professor Rancourt's trials and tribulations, as well as Stanley Fish's criticism of them, can be found on Stanley Fish's blog on the New York Times website at http://fish.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/02/08/the-two-languages-of-academic…

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Spirit in an Age of Science Part IV
By John von HeyKing on February 11, 2009

The final part of my series on Spirit in an Age of Science (see also Part I, Part II, and Part III) is an examination of Kronman's claim that the proper role of the humanities is to understand what falls outside the domain of modern scientific (i.e., technological) research (the modern university's ideal). I discuss how he arrives as this conclusion and then offer a critique.

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Blogging as a teaching tool
By Gabriel Martinez on February 13, 2009

This semester I am teaching a course on economics and ideology ("Markets, State, and Institutions"). The idea is to get students to understand why “the other side” would argue for policies that seem crazy. Formally, we try to examine the philosophical basis for, say, Barack Obama's or Ron Paul's policy proposals, and then examples of the actual policies themselves. As usual, eliciting student participation has been quite difficult. This always befuddled me: the topics are incredibly interesting, extremely timely, and passionately argued. In my ideal, the class meetings become something of a salon, with students making sensible, intellectually honest, well-informed, passionate arguments in favor or against positions. Kind of like the Lincoln party I hosted last Thursday night.

Well, it doesn't turn out that way

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Everyone Deserves an A
By Lee Trepanier on February 18, 2009

There an interesting article on the sense of entitlement of college students today that lead them to think they deserve at least a B, if not an A, for merely putting effort into the class. The article is "Students Expectations Seen as Causing Grade Disputes" by Max Roosevelt in The New York Times. The link is here http://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/18/education/18college.html?_r=1&ref=ed…

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Education is not a Business
By Lee Trepanier on February 18, 2009

This article, "The Business Model is the Wrong Model" by Peter Katopes in Inside Higher Ed might be of interest to everyone. The article raises some interesting questions about the incoporating of "business practices" into higher education. The link is here: http://www.insidehighered.com/views/2009/02/16/katopes

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Job Interviews: A View from the Trenches
By Anonymous on February 18, 2009

Finding the right academic job is one of the most important events in the life of any faculty member. And an essential first step in this process is the job interview. The LASC Blog has now listed a number of postings regarding the job interview- a sort of master list of do's and don't's. I have been deep in the trenches of interviewing candidates and attending candidate presentations during the last few months and would like to offer the following recommendations.

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Introducing the Subfields of Political Science: Political Philosophy - Part 1
By John von Heyking on February 19, 2009

Editor's note: This post, inadvertently published out of order, should follow the as yet unpublished: "Introducing Political Science: What is Politics? - Part 2". Mea culpa.

In my previous posts, I explained how I try to introduce the activity of politics to students. Following my "great books" approach to introducing political science, I then turn to each of the subfields: political philosophy, Canadian politics (in the U.S., this section would obviously cover U.S. politics), international relations, and comparative politics.

There are numerous texts with which one can introduce political philosophy to first-year students. Moreover, any number of them can serve as a general introduction to politics…

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